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INVESTIGATION: Convicted Sex Offender Lives Near Home for Battered Women

Thursday, July 31, 2014

 

 A home for battered women in Woonsocket is located just a few doors down the street from a convicted sex offender who molested a teenage girl and a young boy, a GoLocalProv investigation has found.

The sex offender’s residence is located approximately 500 feet from the home determined by a review of city property records, state sex offender records, and Google Maps. The home is owned by Sojourner House, a Rhode Island agency whose mission is to care for and shelter women who are victims of domestic violence and their children.

 “I find it very troubling,” said Carolyn Medeiros, a victims advocate and executive director of the Alliance for Safe Communities.

“There certainly shouldn’t be a pedophile in close proximity to a women’s shelter,” Medeiros said.

In Rhode Island, as other states, there are laws barring convicted sex offenders from living near schools. Here, the buffer zone is just 300 feet. But buffers in other states generally range between 500 and 2,500 feet, according to the American Bar Association. The sex offender buffer laws of other states typically apply to schools, parks, daycare centers, or bus stops, according to the ABA. In Rhode Island, the law only deals with schools.

Sojourner House purchased the home in 2008, the same year the now-convicted sex offender was arrested and charged with second-degree child molestation. In 2012, he pled no contest to two counts of second-degree child molestation and received 10-year suspended sentences. He also has previously pled no contest two charges of felony assault with a dangerous weapon or substance and breaking and entering, state court records show.

GoLocalProv has previously revealed that the purchase of the home was a violation of federal grant regulations and that the agency was under investigation for financial mismanagement and potential fraud by three federal agencies—the FBI, the Inspector General, and the Justice Department’s Office of Violence Against Women. The agency was ultimately cleared of fraud but federal investigators found evidence of unauthorized spending and other violations of federal grant regulations.

 Sojourner House fired its previous executive director, obtained a grant from a state agency to pay off the mortgage on the home, and has been under new leadership since spring 2011.

But Sojourner House was allowed to keep the home. Because disclosure of the home’s location could undermine the safety of the women who reside there, GoLocalProv is declining to publish its street address. The names, addresses, and other similar identifiable information for the convicted sex offender are being withheld for the same reason.

State records show the sex offender was convicted of molesting a female teenager and a younger boy, both of whom were known to him. State authorities have determined that he has a “moderate” risk of molesting someone again. (In law enforcement lingo, he is labeled as a Level II offender. Level III offenders are at the greatest risk of committing the same crime again, while Level I are at least likely to re-offend.)

Medeiros said children in a battered women’s shelter are particularly vulnerable because the male figure in their lives has either abandoned or abused them. They could easily be taken in by an adult male who showers them with kindness and approval, she said. It’s the last thing their mothers should have to worry about, she added. “They sure as heck don’t need their kids to walk down the block to Dunkin Donuts and encounter a sexual predator,” Medeiros said.

Her organization recently was successful in its push for a new state law that would ban any sex offender from working in environments where there are lots of children, including arcades, movie theaters, schools, and children’s hospitals. Medeiros said she now will contact the Attorney General’s office and look into legislation that would bar sex offenders from living near battered women’s shelters.

 She said sex offenders should not live within a block or a tenth of a mile of those shelters. At a minimum, she said shelters should be notified of any offenders living nearby.

While Rhode Island may have a small school-only buffer zone, notifications are sometimes community organizations and residents located within a quarter to half a mile from the sex offender’s residence, according to Paula Kocon, the coordinator for the Rhode Island Sex Offender Community Notification Unit. Community organizations receive notifications for convicts with a moderate risk of re-offending. All residents are notified for offenders with a high risk.

The distance—a quarter to half a mile—varies by community and is set by the local police departments. Those who receive notifications are deemed likely to encounter the sex offender, according to Kocon.

In Woonsocket, six additional sex offenders live within half a mile of the battered women’s home.

They include three men convicted of molestation, three who sexually assaulted teenagers, and one who sexually assaulted a woman in her mid-20s. One of the sex offenders convicted of assaulting a teenager also was charged with raping a child and indecent assault and battery of an adult woman. 

Woonsocket consistently ranks as the community with one of the highest ratios of sex offenders to residents in the state. In 2011, Woonsocket ranked at the top of the state with 10.4 offenders for every 5,000 residents. The statewide average then was 2.9 offenders for every 5,000 citizens. In 2013, Woonsocket still ranked near the top of the list, taking second place after Cranston.

 Sojourner House actually owns two homes for abused women in Woonsocket. The house it bought in 2008 is used to provide longer-term or transitional housing for those women. It has owned a second house in the city at least since 2005. That is used as a temporary shelter for abused women. That home also has two sex offenders living within half a mile, state records show. 

Sojourner House is currently facing a whistleblower lawsuit from a former employee, Lisa Fisher, the former director of residential services. In her suit, Fisher, who claims she was unjustly fired, asserts that the agency’s housing facilities are unsafe.

GoLocalProv submitted a series of questions directly to Sojourner House’s current executive director, Vanessa Volz. In particular, she was asked if the nonprofit believes Woonsocket is the safest location for the two homes and if it had been aware of the sex offenders living nearby.

Volz did not directly respond. Instead, Sojourner House spokesman Bill Fischer issued a statement touting the nonprofit’s 35-year history of serving over 50,000 domestic violence victims. “Sex offenders reside in many communities. The greater threat to victims of domestic violence occurs when their would-be abusers discover where they are living,” Fischer noted in the statement.

Fischer also noted that the lawsuit was dismissed earlier this year in Providence County Superior Court. But an amended complaint has been filed by Fisher. “A second motion to dismiss is now pending, and we will let that process take place in the courts,” Fischer said. The attorney for Fisher, Nicholas Gelfuso, declined to comment.

Medeiros said nonprofits that work with victims of crimes need more public oversight, especially because they often receive public funding. “They’re all going under the radar and they’re not being scrutinized at all,” Medeiros said. “They should be held to a higher standard.” 

Stephen Beale can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @bealenews

 

Related Slideshow: Sojourner House: Safety and Financial Issues

Proximity to sex offenders is among the concerns raised about the management of a local nonprofit dedicated to helping abused women. Below is a breakdown of concerns that have been raised about the safety and financial health of the program. 

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Molester Down the Street

Just a few hundred feet away from a Woonsocket home for abused women lives a sex offender convicted of second-degree child molestation. Below are key facts and figures from this individual’s criminal history. (To protect the safety of the battered women’s home, his name, address, and other identifying information are being withheld.)

Child Molestation

Victim gender: male and female

Victim ages: Pre-teen and early teen

Risk of re-offending: “moderate”

Other Criminal Charges

Felony Assault with a Dangerous Weapon or Substance (no contest plea)

Breaking and Entering (no contest plea)

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Sex Offender Neighbors

Facility: transitional housing for abused women

Owner: Sojourner House

City: Woonsocket

Number of Sex Offenders within Half a Mile: 7

Offenses include: Sexual assault, first, second, and third degrees; child molestation, first and second degrees; rape of a child with force, indecent assault and battery, failure to register

Source: Sex Offender Community Notification Unit of the Rhode Island Parole Board

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Sex Offender Neighbors

Facility: temporary shelter for abused women

Owner: Sojourner House

City: Woonsocket

Number of Sex Offenders within Half a Mile: 2

Offenses include: Indecent assault and battery, first degree sexual

Source: Sex Offender Community Notification Unit of the Rhode Island Parole Board

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Child Safety Zones

Typical state buffers around schools and other kid-frequented areas like parks and playgrounds range widely. Below is a breakdown of the typical range in other states compared with Rhode Island.

Typical buffer minimum distance: 500

Typical buffer maximum distance: 2,500 feet

Rhode Island buffer: 300 feet (schools only)

Source: American Bar Association, Rhode Island General Laws

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Community Notification

Members of a community will not always be notified if a sex offender has moved into the neighborhood. Even then, not all residents will necessarily be notified. Rhode Island General Laws 11-37.1-12 sets forth the following guidelines for notification:

If risk of re-offense is low, law enforcement agencies and any individuals identified in accordance with the parole board guidelines shall be notified;

If risk of re-offense is moderate, organizations in the community likely to encounter the person registered shall be notified in accordance with the parole board's guidelines, in addition to the notice required by subdivision (1) of this subsection;

If risk of re-offense is high, the members of the public likely to encounter the person registered shall be notified through means in accordance with the parole board's guidelines designed to reach members of the public likely to encounter the person registered, in addition to the notice required by subdivisions (1) and (2) of this subsection.

Read the law.

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Home Purchase Questioned

2008

“Sojourner House insisted on purchasing a particular property at a questionable if not outright dangerous location in Woonsocket in a manner that was in conflict with the terms of a federal transitional housing grant from an individual by the name of Harilaos Apazidis, who has apparently recently been convicted of bank fraud for obtaining loans to do repairs on properties that he did not actually own.  It is believed that this purchase was orchestrated primarily by Sojourner House Barbara Scanlon, who happens to be a real estate agent.”

—Attorney Nicholas Gelfuso, in court filings for former Sojourner House employee Lisa Fisher

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Federal Probe

December 2009

A December 2009 site visit report from the U.S. Department of Justice's Office of Violence Against Women found that Sojourner House had not properly administered a federal grant, that its former executive director had misused funds, and that the nonprofit was not financially stable. Sojourner House’s board reports its members “have made contact with the FBI regarding a criminal investigation”

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Mortgage Bailout

February 2010

“An application was submitted to Rhode Island Housing to pay off the mortgage on the property, which was granted in February 2010 on the condition that Sojourner House apply for funding through Woonsocket and that Sojourner House approach the bank and develop a workout plan with Freedom National and the Federal Home Loan Bank of Boston."

“It was agreed that the Board president and members of the Board would approach the bank and present financials, disclose the situation, and develop in good faith a work out plan with the bank. According to the former interim executive director, no work out plan was requested or discussed, and no work out plan was requested or discussed.”

—Attorney Nicholas Gelfuso, initial complaint in lawsuit filed on behalf of Lisa Fisher, former Sojourner House employee

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Audit Shows Poor Finances

May 5, 2010  

An audit for fiscal year 2009, found Sojourner House had a “significant decrease in net assets, is experiencing cash flow problems, has two debt covenant violations and the funding for one of its federal grants has been suspended.” The report also noted the nonprofit had suffered a $232,305 reduction in net assets and had no contingencies for four former employee complaints. Overall, the report identified a dozen “material weaknesses in internal control over major federal award programs.”

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Federal Money Refunded

May 18, 2010

The Office of Violence Against Women issues a letter noting that while there have been no findings of fraud, federal authorities have identified “major financial issues” at Sojourner House. The nonprofit is ordered to refund $35,122.50 in federal grant money, an amount that represents $7,610.15 in unallowable expenditures and $27,512.25 that did not have sufficient supporting documentation. 

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Ex-Employee Alleges Fraud

March 2011

“Sojourner House Executive Director Vanessa Volz asked [Lisa] Fisher to solicit sprinkler bids for work that had already been completed in connection with a community development block grant which the agency had received.”

Fisher “challenged the need for the bids and complained about the task to Ms. Volz and other staff (including the bookkeeper who was on staff at the time), rather than simply completing the assignment she had been given, namely, solicit fake bids for work that had already been done, otherwise known as fraud.”

—Court filings on behalf of Lisa Fisher

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'Whistleblower' Fired

December 2011

Lisa Fisher was fired from Sojourner House in December 2011. According to both Fisher and officials at Sojourner House, the termination came after months of a rocky working relationship between Fisher and several coworkers. In legal filings, Sojourner House claimed that Fisher “often had to be asked several times before she completed tasks delegated to her.” 

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Employee Contests Firing

November 2012

On November 27, 2012, Lisa Fisher filed a charge of discrimination with the Rhode Island Commission for Human Rights. Fisher alleged that her termination was based on her color, illness, and age, as well as her questioning of the sprinkler bids assignment.

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Whistleblower Lawsuit

October 2013

According to a lawsuit filed by Lisa Fisher and her attorney, her termination stemmed from her questioning “the need for the bids on contracts for work that had already been completed and complain[ing] about having to perform the task to Vanessa Volz and other staff, including the bookkeeper.”

“Plaintiff was subsequently terminated based on her 'job performance' and 'failure to complete tasks,’” the complaint continued. “The above actions are in violation of the Rhode Island Whistleblowers’ Protection Act R.I.G.L. 28-50-1 et al. and plaintiff demands all relief available thereunder.”

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Lawsuit Allowed to Go On

June 2014

The lawsuit was amended, adding charges of defamation, right to privacy, breach of contract, and civil conspiracy to the charge of violating the Whistleblower Protection Act. On June 11, Judge Joseph Montalbano denied Sojourners' House motion for final judgment, allowing the lawsuit to proceed.

 
 

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